Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997


NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE

Sam Moskowitz, 1920-1997. While still in high school in the mid-'30s, Sam Moskowitz, who died April 15th, became involved in science-fiction fandom as one of a few hundred active sf fans who met irregularly in feuding groups of six or eight, published carbon-copy or hectographed fanzines, and dreamt of a great national or even international organization. A left-wing group in New York called the Futurians, led by Donald Wollheim and Frederik Pohl, hoped to organize a "world sf convention" dedicated to "progressive" causes, but the 18-year-old Moskowitz led a group with other ideas that succeeded in staging the first convention of note (New York, 1939), one from which the Futurians were expelled as a disruptive force.

Although supporting himself with routine work, having decided that writing sf was a poor way to make a living, Moskowitz devoted himself heart and soul to the sf movement, the most active of fans and the most dedicated of fan-writers. Cavalier toward and disdainful of scholarly procedures, he plunged into the history of science fiction in a series of poorly researched articles on pre-genre writers (Cyrano, Mary Shelley, Verne, Wells, Shiel, Burroughs, et al.) that appeared in Amazing Stories in the early sixties and were collected as Explorers of the Infinite in 1963. His second book on sf history, Seekers of Tomorrow (1966), is much better, being concerned with the sf writers of his own time and largely of his acquaintance and thus requiring much less in the way of scholarship. (Even so, many of the writers treated in that volume, especially those of a more literary bent, protested that he was careless about facts and didn't really understand their work). Moskowitz then began to delve into old magazines and newspapers for sf forgotten by or never known to present-day readers. The result was a valuable series of anthologies with extensive commentary, of which the first two were Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911 (1968) and Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of the Scientific Romance in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920 (1970), the latter being also a history of sf in all the popular magazines of the period. The commentary in these books reveals an unacknowledged mission, revising literary history in a way that would raise the status of his favorite authors. Thus Mary Shelley is more important in the history of literature than her husband, Edgar Rice Burroughs is a greater novelist than H.G. Wells, etc., etc. Although there is some evidence that Moskowitz had not read all the works on which he passed judgment (in Under the Moons of Mars, Wells's Love and Mr Lewisham is called "a pleasant love story" [312]), the factual statements in these books are generally accurate. Moskowitz's research into the history of sf, though less valuable than it would be if adequately documented, has been of such heroic proportions that we are all in his debt. Even though he was a fierce controversialist when aroused, he seems to have held no grudges. The sf community is much the poorer for his passing.—RDM.

 

Back to Kansas. In the previous issue of SFS, I proposed a tentative foundation for a new way of looking at sf—"naive criticism." The essay was written, deliberately, as a hyperbolic backlash against postmodern sf criticism. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., answered with a lengthy critique of my article. I would like to clarify certain aspects of my essay, which I think he dismissed too quickly.

Postmodernism can be a useful critical approach; it would be difficult to discuss, e.g., The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Dhalgren without recourse to postmodern concepts of language and identity. But I feel that postmodern theory is ill-suited to the task of optimally exploring those qualities which set genre sf apart from other literature, because sf is, I think, fundamentally naive. When I say that it is "naive," I use the word in a very specific context: sf is naive vis-à-vis postmodern theory in terms of its assumptions about language.

Sf requires a more naive view of language than "mundane" fiction does. Postmodern theory challenges the assumption that when we say the word "cat," there is a straighforward relationship between the spoken signifier ("cat") and received "signified" (the concept of cat), postulating instead that the relationship between language and perception is extremely problematic. This is true. However, we can, at the very least, find a cat, point to it, and say, "When I say `cat,' this is what I am referring to." We have a "mundane," outside reality we can see and touch. The relationship may be complex, but at least we have the objective reality as a point of reference. In sf, we don't have that luxury—when discussing, e.g., one of Le Guin's Gethenians, we cannot find a Gethenian, point to it, and say, "Look, this is what I'm referring to."

The relationship between sf and objective reality is tenuous enough without the addition of postmodern complications. As much as we need to suspend our disbelief when we enter the fictional worlds of sf, we often need to suspend our postmodernity as well. This act of willed naiveté, so to speak, while unproductive in the reading of a minority of experimental sf works, can be of benefit in the discussion of much genre sf. Yes, language is deceptive and unstable, as postmodern critics tell us, but we may lose something of value if our approach to sf is relentlessly postmodern, because sf's own assumptions about language are usually not postmodern. We must recognize that sf fiction believes, naively, even bravely, that language can somehow describe objects alien to our own world, can meaningfully portray the bizarre, alien, impossible. Sf takes us far away from everyday reality; in order for us to glean anything of value from such fictions, they must be defined against a stable and known reality—i.e., our reality—which sf generally takes for granted and feels can be adequately represented through language. Of course, we must accept what we are being told with a grain of salt, but we should accept it to some extent, then see what can be gained.

That is what I mean by naiveté in sf criticism—an acceptance of sf's approach to language—not that we should see sf as a literature of escape; or that I consider works to be sf or not based on whether they depress me or not; or that there are no problems in the historical world which sf, and literature in general, must deal with.

Rather, what is naive about sf is its approach to problems in the historical world. Through its fictional constructions, sf often, implicitly or explicitly, posits answers to social/ethical/moral issues. It does so with "moral seriousness," as Csicsery-Ronay disparagingly remarks; or, as Joanna Russ has remarked elsewhere, science fiction is didactic. Sf writers use the tools of the genre to express their view of moral/religious/ethical/metaphysical truth. There is nothing simple about truth, nor am I advocating simple black/white distinctions, narrow-minded essentialist arguments which refuse to entertain complexities. On the contrary, what I like about sf is that its many authors offer the reader many "truths"; none of them, of course, are unequivocally true, but they can challenge, remake, or reinforce our own personal opinion of "truth." For this to happen, I think it's necessary to allow the writer to make the point he or she wants to make, to accept a naive view of language— and then, once we have established, insofar as it's possible to do so, what the writer is saying, we can look at it rigorously, critically, questioningly; we can be postmodern. Naturally, we are free to doubt, reject, modify the didactic "truth" being expressed, but if we don't even allow the text to express its didactic claim in its own naive fashion, then we miss the possibility of being enlightened by a Russ or a Le Guin or a Card, whose works can tell us much of value about our world if we allow them to.

Csicsery-Ronay calls his counter-argument "We're Not in Kansas Anymore." But I would like to know what we're going to do when we get back to Kansas. After all, Oz is a dream; the sf text is a fiction. I think we should accept Oz naively, as Dorothy does, and similarly accept the sf text naively, until we return. Once we get back, we can interrogate and analyze it and subject it to our most postmodern inquiry, if we so choose—but only when we get back to Kansas, not while we're away in dreamland. We should use our postmodern skepticism to examine the author's conclusions, rather than obfuscating those conclusions. Otherwise, we can't take anything meaningful back to Kansas with us from our fictional journey, while a more naive approach to an sf text may allow us to bring back more of value to our real, everyday lives than the strictly postmodern approach allows.—David Dalgleish.

 

On Samuelson's Review of Reading by Starlight. I suppose I should be grateful to find four pages of SFS devoted to a review of my book, Reading By Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. May I respond to some of Professor Samuelson's errors or misconceptions?

His rather plodding paraphrase of my argument opens with the odd claim that my early admiration of Samuel R. Delany's work was declared in "Bruce Sterling's Australian sf fanzine." This is not an encouraging start, since Sterling is a notable Texan, and would have been in his teens at the time. He means Bruce Gillespie's SF Commentary. It is true that all Australians are named Bruce, but only some Bruces are Australian. I'm not really miffed by this blunder, because I've been known to trip over my own feet. In Starlight, I bizarrely refer (p. 15) to "Roger Bacon's Screaming Popes." Perhaps the Franciscan friar upset a pontiff or two in his day, but I meant Francis Bacon (and not the one who is thought to have formulated the empirical method). I did it again in the Afterword to my recent novel, The White Abacus (Avon, 1997), where I acknowledged the influence of Harold Bloom's A Map of Misprision, a misprision of his true title, A Map of Misreading.

It is annoying, however, to be misinformed that Starlight is a version of a doctoral thesis "on Delany." My dissertation, "Frozen Music" (Deakin University, 1990) has now been published in three separate volumes: The Architecture of Babel: Discourses of Literature and Science (Melbourne University Press, 1994), Reading by Starlight (which, although Samuelson calls it a "relatively slim volume," comprises some 80,000 words), and Theory and Its Discontents (Deakin UP, 1997). Leaving aside bibliographies and indices, these total in excess of 500 pages, of which perhaps only a fifth deal with Delany's theories and fiction.

Samuelson closes by claiming that I identify "with what he calls (but I don't) a `posthumanist' position." I used that term twice: firstly, I referred to Frank Cioffi's reading of sf as a "disturbing portrait of humans at the mercy of their physical and cultural environment, shared in certain respects by poststructuralist analyses of the posthumanist condition...located within the traditional codes of sf construction." Second, I praised Walter Jon Williams' handling, in Aristoi, of "his posthuman characters." Since I have recently published an entire book subverting poststructural and antihumanist verities (Theory and Its Discontents), I do not acknowledge my alleged crime.

Finally, I suppose I must address the tired complaint that I, as a contemporary theorist/critic, use "overloaded sentences which, when unpacked, fail to justify their abstract terminology," and that I do so in order to be "impressive." Like sf itself, all specialized discourses develop their own vernacular. Sometimes the goal is compression and precision, sometimes it is to claim political and practical control over boundaries—a hopeless task, but one that never ceases, ironically exemplified in Professor Samuelson's own protest. If one wishes to make such a charge stick, one needs to give specific examples and argue them. Otherwise . . . get over it.—Damien Broderick, Melbourne.

In Response to Damien Broderick. Of course the Bruce I meant was Gillespie not Sterling. I see in Broderick's letter, however, no other embarrassing misstatements. I said his book "covers the same territory" as his dissertation, which he now admits, along with two other books mined from his academic study (more than I could ever do). My summary surely is "plodding" compared to his darting from topic to topic, which it reveals in stark outline. He devotes one-third of his pages to Delany, whose presence broods over the rest of the book, and who is the only extended example justifying his subtitle.

If identifying him as "post-humanist" was in error and somehow insulting, it was an honest mistake, based partly on Broderick's style and practice. I was also going on record to say that I do not see post-structuralism and the post-modern as post-humanist, whether he identifies with them or not (apparently my sentence was overloaded). My review of Cioffi is also on record [Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review 11 (January-February 1983) 8-9].

As for Broderick's prose excesses, I did in fact quote examples and ended the review with only a minimal complaint. Reviewers rarely dissect every bad example in a book to instruct the writer and bore the reader. I'll be glad to do so if he submits something to SFS which I am asked to edit. Meanwhile, I will seek the other volumes carved from his dissertation for my own edification, if not to review. Higher praise a writer cannot get.—David N. Samuelson, CSU Long Beach.

 

It Still Rotates. Perhaps the most famous scene in all science fiction is that in which the Time Traveller, realizing that he is nearing the end of his journey, muses on the end of all things:

At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and then suffering a momentary extinction.... I perceived by this slowing down of its rising and setting that the work of the tidal drag was done. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun, even as in our own time the moon faces the earth.

Of the critics who have have been led by this passage to speak of celestial mechanics, some, perhaps all, have misunderstood the principles involved, saying that "the planet has ceased to revolve" (Anthony West, "H.G. Wells," Encounter 8:52-59, 1957); "the earth has ceased to rotate" (Bernard Bergonzi, "The Publication of The Time Machine 1894-5," Review of English Studies, n.s., 11:42-51, 1957; The Early H.G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances [Manchester: Manchester UP, 1961], 59); "the earth has ceased to rotate on its axis" (Frank D. McConnell, ed., H.G. Wells, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds [NY: Oxford UP, 1977] 93, n.2); "the earth no longer rotates" (Reinhold Kramer, "The Machine in the Ghost: Time and Presence in Varley's Millennium," Extrapolation 32:156-69, 1991); "the earth has now stopped rotating on its axis" (Leon Stover, ed., H.G. Wells, The Time Machine...A Critical Text.... [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996], 158, n. 222).

But long before Wells's time it had been ascertained that any orbiting moon or planet that keeps one face to the parent body must slowly rotate on its axis, with the period of its rotation (its "day") being equal to its period of orbit around the parent body (its "year"). This is the case with the earth's moon and is the case Wells envisages for the earth in "The Further Vision" when the tidal drag of the sun on the earth has done its work. The phrases "the sun... halted motionless on the horizon" and "the earth had come to rest" are relative expressions only, meaning that the sun and the earth appear motionless relative to each other from the point of view of an observer on earth (the Time Traveller). This is quite different from the statement that the earth has "ceased to rotate." The "absolute" motion of the earth continues: the earth still orbits the sun and still rotates on its axis, albeit slowly.—B.D. Sommerville, Randwick, New South Wales.

 

The Revival of Interest in Mary Shelley. In SFS #71 David Ketterer speaks of the phenomenal awakening of interest in Mary Shelley, without specifying the most remarkable product of that awakening. Last year, in good time for the bi-centennary of her birth, the firm of William Pickering published The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley in 8 vols, Roy 8vo, in Oxford blue cloth with green labels. Good paper, excellent print. This sumptuous edition—with footnotes at the bottom of the page—has Nora Crook as General Editor, with the indefatigable Betty T.Bennett as Consulting Editor for the Frankenstein volume, and various editors for the other novels. Jane Blumberg edits The Last Man.

This edition is a wonder and must give all sf writers a little hope. Maybe in the twenty-second century, some far-sighted publisher—but I'm dreaming! —Brian W. Aldiss, Oxford.

 

The "Lost" Jules Verne. Brian Taves' review of the "lost" Jules Verne is right on the mark, but the "loss" of the novel until a few years ago brings up some interesting questions which, as far as I know, have not yet been addressed.

When the news of Paris in the Twentieth Century first broke, it seemed too good to be true, and I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who wondered if it might be a hoax—like, say, the Vinland map. By "too good to be true," I mean for scholars and critics, of course; as Taves observes, "probably readers should be pleased that Verne followed Hetzel's advice and concentrated on adventurous science fiction." But now that the authenticity of the novel is beyond question, scholars and critics can have a field day: was Verne living (or at least writing) a lie in the voyages extraordinaires, concealing his true dystopian vision of science and "progress"? Or did he—like many others— perhaps have different views or feelings at different times? Should we look more closely for the hidden subtexts of even his most "optimistic" works?

Then there is the field of speculation, the what ifs. What if Paris in the Twentieth Century had been published in the 1860s? Would it have advanced the evolution of sf at one step from the invention story/travel tale to the sociological dystopia? Or would it, as Hetzel believed, simply have destroyed Verne's career? Beyond even these questions, however, is a mystery that I believe begs for a solution. Why did Verne never attempt to have Paris in the Twentieth Century published later, perhaps in a revised/updated version?

We know about "In the the 29th Century" which appeared in 1889 and was, as Taves notes, "written primarily by Verne's son Michel." We know that Albert Robida published The Twentieth Century in 1882, and Verne can scarcely have been unaware of it—especially since Robida had earlier published a deliberate parody of the voyages imaginaires. Not having known of Paris in the Twentieth Century, it was easy for us to assume that Verne had little or no interest in tales set in the future, and that "In the 20th Century" was just a throwaway piece in which his only role was to indulge his son. We know better now. But why didn't Verne take advantage of Robida's success to have his own futuristic novel published? He can't have been afraid he would be accused of stealing Robida's idea, for Hetzel could have established that Verne's novel had been written two decades earlier. Was he simply afraid Robida had upstaged him, and that it wasn't worth the trouble to claim priority in the invention of the futuristic tale? He surely can't have forgotten about his own work; it's hard to believe he wouldn't have discussed it with Michel anent "In the 29th Century."

I note that there is no mention of Robida in Herbert R. Lottman's Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography, which does cover the whole affair of Paris in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps the French critics are already on a trail he missed. Or perhaps the trail is too cold to follow at this date. But if there is anything to be learned from all this, I'm sure I'm not the only one who would love to learn it.—John J. Pierce, Bloomfield.

 

SF Round Table at Esse/4, Debrecen. European readers, please note! There will be a Round Table on Science Fiction and Fantasy at the 4th conference of the European Society for the Study of English (Europe's answer to the MLA), to be held at Debrecen, Hungary, on September 5-9, 1997. The purpose of the Round Table is to bring together teachers and researchers on sf and fantasy in European universities and, if possible, to establish a network. The organizers are Patrick Parrinder (University of Reading, UK) and Denise Terrel (Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis, France). For further information contact me by email at J.P.Parrinder@reading.ac.uk or by fax at +44 (118) 9316561.—Patrick Parrinder, University of Reading.

 

Moreau and Plaxy Redivivus. In a note in #71 I spoke of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow as the novel most effectively joining novelistic and sf traits that I had read in many years and also said that I would not be at all surprised if it came to rival The Left Hand of Darkness in popularity among sf academics. Now comes Lives of the Monster Dogs by one Kirsten Bakis, published (by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and reviewd (in NYTBR) as a mainstream novel. While I doubt that it will achieve the commercial success of The Sparrow (a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection) or equal The Sparrow (winner of the 1996 Tiptree Award) in academic sf prestige, I think it an even better novel, stronger in novelistic virtues and adequate in its sf basis. The enthusiastic NYTBR reviewer did not make the obvious comparison with The Island of Dr Moreau even though the "monster dogs" are carved into human stature and intelligence by a mad scientist.

Another very good mainstream novel with an sf basis is Peter Goldsworthy's Wish: A Biologically Engineered Love Story, published in Australia but apparently not yet in the US or the UK. Here comparison with Stapledon's Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord is more appropriate than with Moreau, for the geneticists who raise Wish, a female gorilla, to human intelligence are not mad in the same sense as Moreau or as Kirsten Bakis's Prussian vivisectionist (whose intent was to create an invincible army for the Second Reich). Wish extrapolates from current experimental methods of communicating with apes. Wish's Plaxy—the narrator—is a teacher of Sign. The novel is eloquent on sign language, the lives of the deaf, and animal rights. (My thanks to Dr Bruce Shaw for sending me a copy of Wish.)—RDM.


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